Skin maintenance. For your hands. Could there be a more trivial topic? Well, probably not. But to climbers, healing splits and worn down skin is a continual challenge. On many climbing trips, and especially at my current location of Smith Rock, skin, not physical strength, is the determining factor when trying to send your project. Over the past thirteen years of climbing, I’ve whittled down the following method to keep my tips tough. It’s still imperfect, but I think I’ve come a long way. So, as dumb as the topic may seem, here’s my process.
1. Know your goal. Unlike the rest of the population, we’re not looking for soft and supple skin. Therefore, most lotions on the market are going to work against you. Skip those.
2. Choose cooler temps. The best way to acquire strong skin is to not wear it down in the first place. Of course, this isn’t exactly an option. But avoiding climbs in the sun or choosing to rest on a hot day will save you extra rest days later on. Skin becomes soft and tender in the heat, and will puncture more easily as layers after layers roll off. When possible, chase cooler days, or at least shady rock (the kind in the shade, not the shady chossy kind). During a short warm spell last week, we set aside our projects and opted for a training day in the shady gully – more enjoyable, less destructive, no sunburns.
3. Sand. Rather than using a flat file, I like to wrap fine grit sandpaper around a pencil, which allows me to reach the creases of my fingers, where the majority of my splits occur. Angie Payne once told me you have to make it worse before you can make it better. This might mean sanding a painful split. While not so fun in the moment, removing the dead skin around a split will allow your skin to seal back together more quickly. That said, be gentle. You’re not trying to get rid of your calluses, just remove some of the elephant cracks to promote healing.
4. Wear belay gloves. Those with sweaty hands may prefer fingerless gloves, since sweating in your gloves could make your skin softer. I have horribly dry skin, so don’t mind full fingered gloves. Either way, belay gloves will keep your skin cleaner and reduce general wear and tear while holding the rope.
5. Wash your hands. This is a widely disputed topic. Many climbers wash their hands and shower sparingly. First, that’s just gross. Second, is it really helpful? I used to adamantly wear rubber gloves when washing dishes and cleaning, but didn’t even find that to help. Regardless of your feelings on the number of showers per week required to respectfully be a part of society, at least wash your hands. Most importantly, wash your hands as soon as you’re done climbing, whether it’s in the gym sink or the river at the crag. Removing the chalk and dirt from your skin as soon as possible will allow your skin to start healing. When you’re not climbing, your skin doesn’t need to be free of moisture, so give it the best chance to regrow.
6. Use salve. Preferable to lotion, salve can help your skin regrow without making it soft. I don’t have any science to back that up, but surely someone does. I thought all climbing salves were pretty similar – helpful but greasy – until I tried Ultimate Fix by Mac’s Smack. I’ve noticed pretty rapid healing in some deep splits with this salve, and it’s much less greasy than others I’ve tried. I use it right before bed and wake up with noticeably stronger tips. Ultimate Fix also claims to help with bad hair days and bad dates, which would probably come in handy in the climbing world…
7. Pet a puppy. Because they’re soft! Ok, but seriously, if you have other recommendations that work, I’m open to hear!